On Wednesday 4 October, the Australian government announced the selection of Lockheed Martin AEGIS combat management system for the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) nine Future Frigates (SEA 5000). Importantly, it was also announced that Saab Australia will develop an Australian tactical interface to manage the non-AEGIS systems, including the CEA Technologies CEAFAR Active Phased Array Radar. In the spirit to include as many Australian-made systems in the programme as possible, the incorporation of the CEAFAR in the new frigates had been made a mandatory requirement by the government from the start.
However ‘local build’ and ‘sovereignty’ are not the only two reasons the Australian government chose CEAFAR for its SEA 5000 programme; rather, scalability, resilience and automation are amongst the key features that contribute to the success of CEA Technologies’ radar.
CEAFAR is an active phased array radar that combines microwave tiles and a Digital Beam Forming (DBF) backend. “CEAFAR can be built in a number of frequency bands that a customer may require,” Merv Davis, Chief Executive Officer at CEA Technologies, told MONS. “Whether S-, X-, L- or C-band, the key element facilitating the radar’s scalability is the common architecture at its core.”
CEAFAR can be described as a combination of three components: the tiles, which house the microwave transmit and receive elements; the digital backend processors; and the cold-plates, which support and connect the tiles and digital backends. “The S-band radar for the Future Frigates as such comprises 64 tiles for a total of 4096 elements, and the whole ship radar system will include approximately 20 faces,” Ian T. Croser Technical Director at CEA Technologies, told MONS. “Given that the required supporting infrastructure is installed customers can initially configure a face to meet their current operational requirement and increase the number of tiles later on if their requirements change.”
“Since each tile supports 64 elements, resulting in thousands of elements transmitting and receiving on the radar face, failures of a number of elements is a relatively minor issue,” continued Mr Croser. Similarly all cables linking each face’s processors to the below deck equipment are duplicated, as is other critical infrastructure, facilitating a switch in the event that one cable or element starts malfunctioning. “We have made a point to develop a radar that has a high level of reliability to reduce maintenance times and costs as much as possible.”
The key advantage in having such a large number of elements and 6-faces, is that the radar can deal with multiple threats at the same time as well as threats demanding a very fast response such as supersonic missiles. “When a supersonic missile is detected attacking a ship, there is virtually no time for human decision-making; instead, it is crucial to have a system that can detect and make a decision as fast as possible,” says Mr Davis. CEAFAR’s thousands of elements, combined with the use of gallium-nitride (GaN) in the power amplifiers, ensure a high standard of reliability in those situations. “The system has also been built to adapt to changing threats by learning from each situation,” indicates Mr Croser. As such, according to Mr Davis: “While previously the limitation of a response to a threat lay in the time taken from detection to weapon launch that has now been largely overcome, now the limitation lies more in the number of weapons that can be launched from a ship.”
MONS asked Mr Davis what the next steps were for CEA Technologies: “We will continue increasing the bands in which the technology can operate as well as the processing power within the phased arrays, but we will also continue to develop different configurations including a smaller and lighter version that can go on land vehicles.”
Currently CEA Technologies offers a highly capable land version that fits into a 20ft ISO container and comprises six faces. CEAFAR is available as a government-to-government purchase via the Australian Military Sales Office (AMSO). Moreover, the company has completely reversed the trend towards COTS electronics and instead designs and manufactures almost all aspects of the radars, including down to the printed circuit boards. This is for several reasons, but an important one is to avoid the almost automatic obsolescence that comes with commercial technology – as anyone with a smart phone or laptop experiences every two years or so. Another advantage of specialised manufacturing is that the company is not selling a shopping list of hardware – it is in the business of understanding customer requirements and then developing radars specific to their needs.